Maya Angelou, Dead at 86 [Obituary]
As a poet, especially as a Black American poet, I had a deep admiration for Maya Angelou. I’ve been acquainted with her writings since I was a child in grade school. Up into college, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings appeared on almost every syllabus for my literature courses. In recent years, I found comfort in seeing the living legend share inspiring status updates on Facebook almost every day. She lived through Jim Crow, the rise of Black nationalism, and assassinations that shook the nation to its core. In the 21st century, she joined millennials and people from other generations on Twitter and Facebook.
Marguerite Ann Johnson was born April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. Her older brother, Bailey Jr., nicknamed her Maya after having trouble pronouncing her birth name due to stuttering. Detailed in her first memoir (I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings), Angelou was sexually abused by her mother’s lover at the age of 7. Allegedly, her uncle or uncles beat him to death in revenge subsequently resulting in Angelou becoming mute for five years. She stated “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.”
During her period of silence, Angelou developed an interest in literary arts. A teacher, Bertha Flowers, introduced her to quality Western literature and encouraged her to start speaking again. She relocated to San Francisco, California from her grandmother’s residence in Stamps, Arkansas. While a student in the Bay Area, she studied drama and dance. Before graduating from high school, she worked as San Francisco’s first Black female streetcar conductor (she would later go on to also become the first Black female film director in Hollywood). She graduated pregnant, giving birth to her first and only child several weeks later.
At a time when interracial relationships were still very controversial, she married a Greek sailor named Anastasios “Tosh” Angelopulos in 1952. She started her professional performing career as a nightclub singer, later adapting the name Maya Angelou. She joined the cast of the successful Broadway play Porgy and Bess, touring Europe in 1954 and the following year. Around this time, she studied with dance legend Martha Graham. In 1957, she released Calypso Lady, her debut album as a recording artist.
By 1960, she relocated to New York to further pursue writing and joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild. She starred in Jean Genet’s off-Broadway production The Blacks alongside James Earl Jones, Godfrey Cambridge, Cicely Tyson, and others. Angelou was inspired to write Cabaret For Freedom after meeting Martin Luther King Jr. She collaborated with Cambridge to perform Cabaret for a benefit supporting the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She became the SCLC’s Northern Coordinator at the request of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. During this time, Maya was also aligned with a more militant left that embraced Fidel Castro and aspects of communism (residual sentiments leftover from the second wave of Red Scare in the US). Angelou became romantically involved with South African activist Vusumzi Make and relocated to Cairo, Egypt with him and her son; while there, she worked as an editor for The Arab Observer.
After separating from Make, she relocated to Accra, Ghana with her son. She became faculty at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama. She also worked for the The African Review, The Ghanaian Times, and the Ghanaian Broadcasting Company as a writer and editor.
After the death of Congo leader Patrice Lumumba in 1961, American Black nationalists held a protest at the UN headquarters in New York. After the demonstration, Angelou (who by then was involved with Pan-African activism) met Malcolm X with other radical female activists Rosa Guy and Abbey Lincoln at the Shabazz Restaurant in Harlem. Maya and Malcolm’s mutual respect for one another lead to a blossoming political relationship. She welcomed him to Accra in 1964 with a committee of writers and activists including Julian Mayfield, Les Lacy, and Vicki Garvin. The committee coordinated Malcolm’s itinerary in Ghana, including a meeting with President Kwame Nkrumah. Angelou returned to the United States to help Malcolm X establish the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Malcolm was assassinated on February 21, 1965 leading to the inevitable collapse of his new organization. Angelou was grief-stricken by her friend’s death; she continued pursuing her talents and lived briefly in Hawaii and Los Angeles, California.
In 1968, Angelou reconnected with friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to help him organize a march; sadly, he was assassinated on her 40th birthday. The same year, she wrote and produced a ten-part doc-series called Blacks, Blues, Black! for National Education Television. Her close friend, writer and activists James Baldwin, encouraged her to continue writing. The following year, she released her first book I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, leading to widespread success and critical acclaim.
In 1972, with the help of a Swedish film company, she released Georgia, Georgia, becoming the first prominent Black female filmmaker. The film was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She continued writing throughout the 1970s, even working as a song-writer for Roberta Flack. In 1973, she was nominated for a Tony Award for her role in Jerome Kitty’s Broadway production Look Away. Her supporting role in a television mini-series, adapted from Alex Haley’s novel Roots, earned her an Emmy nomination.
In 1981, Angelou was offered the Reynolds Professorship at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She subsequently was given at least fifty honorary degrees from other college institutions. Past presidents, Ford and Carter appointed her to commissions during their presidencies. In 1993, she read “On the Pulse of the Morning” in front of the nation at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration. The same year, she contributed poetry to John Singleton’s Poetic Justice, starring Janet Jackson as a poet in South Los Angeles. Angelou also made a cameo in the film as Aunt June. Years later, she shared a story about how she diffused a fight Tupac Shakur was in while on set:
“I heard him cursing and using such vulgarity. Then the following day, he was in a big row with another young man about his age. I went up to him and told him, ‘I want to speak to you, please.’ He calmed down enough for me to ask him, ‘Do you know how important you are? When was the last time anybody told you or reminded you that our people stood on auction blocks so that you could live today? Somebody in your background decided they would stay alive despite this. They laid in the filthy hatches of slave ships to stay alive so that they would have some descendants. And here you are. You’re more valuable than you can imagine.’ Later, he wept and I wiped his face with my hands because I didn’t have a napkin or handkerchief. Then, I went to my trailer and Janet Jackson came and said, ‘Dr. Angelou, I can’t believe you actually spoke to Tupac Shakur.’ I said, ‘Who is that?’ I [later] told his mother, “I didn’t know six pack or eight pack or ten pack. I didn’t know [who he was].”
In 1998, she directed Down In The Delta starring Wesley Snipes, Loretta Divine, and Esther Rolle. She would continue to be awarded for her achievements going into the 21st century, receiving the Presidential Medal of the Arts and the Ford Theater Lincoln Medal. After years of fighting for racial equality in the United States and abroad, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2011. Last year, she published her final book Mom & Me & Mom, a seventh autobiography.
Maya Angelou was a bonafide Renaissance woman. Like many of her peers, she possessed a plethora of talent across various mediums. She became fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Fanti from traveling and working around the world. She befriended gay icons James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin in the ’50s and ’60s. Throughout her career she remained a strong supporter of gay rights and same-sex marriage. In an interview with Dann Dulin, she said in regards to AIDS “So many friends are dead. So many loved friends are dead because of AIDS. my mind just runs over the list which seems to be unending. It’s just a devastating dragon breathing flame that burns out whole neighborhoods, whole families… I’ll never let a chance pass [to] talk about AIDS. Never.”
Recently, she spoke out against the kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian schoolgirls on Twitter stating “Our future is threatened by the robbing of these young women’s future. We must have our darlings back so that we can help them to heal.” Her very last tweet on May 23 read “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”
Maya Angelou passed away yesterday morning (May 28), at the age of 86. She was scheduled to attend the Major League Baseball Beacon Awards Luncheon as an honoree, but canceled last week for health reasons. In a statement, she said “It is with deep regret that I am unable to attend the MLB Beacon Awards Luncheon. I am aware that the Civil Rights Game is Major League Baseball’s opportunity to encourage and lead its fans and friends in honoring and remembering a critical time in our nation’s history, and I respect the league greatly for recognizing the need for this event. I am very proud to be one of the MLB Beacon Award honorees, amongst an impressive list of figures that were, and still are, part of the civil rights movement.”
In her interview with Dann Dulin, she was asked about her thoughts on what happens after death. She stated “I have seen that if you take a drop of water from the ocean and put it under a microscope you find everything that’s in the ocean is in that drop of water. Every element that’s a whale, or a crab, is in that drop of water. So I have a feeling that we come from the creator. The poet says ‘trailing wisps of glory’—and I think we go back to the creator. That’s my feeling. And we go back as a drop of water is returned to the ocean. And it mingles with something else and it comes out again.”
Dr. Angelou will be dearly missed.
Rest In Peace
April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014